On a Friday morning in December 2012, Gene Rosen saw six children sitting at the end of his driveway, along with an adult bus driver. The children had come from the nearby school.
“We can’t go back to school,” one of the children told him. “Our teacher is dead.”
Over the next few hours, Rosen sheltered the children inside his house and called their parents as the hellish massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary played out just a few hundred yards away. Later, Rosen gave several media interviews in which, understandably, he was clearly upset.
It wasn’t long before the anonymous calls and emails started, calling Rosen a liar, a “crisis actor”, a government stooge. “How are all those little students doing? You know, the ones that showed up at your house after the ‘shooting’. What is the going rate for getting involved in a gov’t sponsored hoax anyway?” Rosen’s basic act of human kindness was being repaid with suspicion and abuse. Why? Because Rosen’s story contradicted a belief that was maintained by a vocal section of the internet: that the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, or at least not in the way reported.
Months later, the powerful image of Jeff Bauman being rushed from the Boston Marathon bombing, his legs visibly missing, flashed around the internet. This time it took mere hours before social media users started accusing him too of being a “crisis actor”: “do you see a drop or blood trail …NOPE! Is he unconscious due to extreme blood loss … NOPE! Are they good actors who are paid to keep you in fear … YEP!”
Rosen, Bauman and many others besides had become victims a second time over: first of the traumatic circumstances they found themselves in, and then of conspiracy theorists who found their very existence inconvenient for the theories they wished to defend.
It’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as mere noise – the “exhaust fumes of democracy” as the late Christopher Hitchens called them – but they are much more of a feature of the landscape than we might think. Depending on the poll, somewhere between six and twenty percent of Americans claim to believe the moon landings were faked; nearly half doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. So-called 9/11 Truthers, and those who claim Princess Diana was murdered by elements within the British establishment remain widespread and vocal. Helpfully, the psychology of conspiracy belief is becoming increasingly better studied. A number of predictors for conspiracy belief, such as a lack of interpersonal trust and a sense of not being in control, have been identified. There’s also empirical evidence that if you believe in one conspiracy, you’re more likely to believe in several – even when the conspiracies contradict each other, such as “Bin Laden is still alive” and “Bin Laden died years before the US says he did”.
Strangely, though, and with a few laudable exceptions, philosophers have largely ignored the subject. Perhaps they were mindful of Karl Popper’s repudiation of the conspiracy theory of society, which he felt merely replaced the vanished gods of the past with shadowy, powerful actors as an explanation for society’s ills. There is, after all, something perversely comforting in the thought that someone, somewhere is in control, even if it’s someone dastardly. The idea of evil forces pulling the strings is somehow better than facing the possibility that there are no strings at all – and philosophy teaches us to be wary of easy comfort. Or perhaps it’s simply that conspiracy theories are often irrational, frequently crankish and sometimes just plain illucid. What could philosophers possibly learn from studying the ravings of the tin-foil hat brigade?
Those philosophers who have looked into the topic (mostly fellow Australasians, I’m proud to report) have focussed on epistemological questions: what, if anything, is wrong with conspiracy theories? Is it sometimes rational, even prudent, to believe in conspiracy theories? Some have tried to rescue the term “conspiracy theory” from the negativity surrounding it. If we define a conspiracy simply as two or more agents working in secret to bring about a given outcome, and a conspiracy theory as an explanation of given events in terms of a conspiracy so defined, then as Charles Pigden points out, anyone who believes in the standard account of history is a conspiracy theorist. History is redolent with conspiracies everyone accepts, from Guy Fawkes to Watergate. And yet we still want to say there’s something rationally wrong with conspiracy theories in general, even though, undeniably, conspiracies do actually happen.
It seems we need a definition of conspiracies better than the one I just gave, one which captures all the conspiracies we want to reject as irrational (e.g. Elvis is alive, Paul McCartney is dead) while leaving out the conspiracies we take to be established fact, such as Iran-Contra. Unfortunately, no such definition has been forthcoming. Even if we follow David Coady and stipulate that conspiracy theories run counter to an “official” explanation, we face the problem that one government’s official story is another country’s conspiracy theory. It seems there’s no way of defining conspiracy theories such that we can reject them out of hand – which as Pigden notes is bad news for politicians who might want to use “that’s just a conspiracy theory” as a way to deflect scrutiny, as Tony Blair did in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
Even so, there’s still a lot we can say is generally wrong with conspiracy theories. Some are clearly inconsistent or implausible on their face, such as David Icke’s claim that the royal family and various other global figures are actually shape-shifting, reptilian aliens. But they have other problems as well. One rather counterintuitive problem is that, as Brad Keeley points out, conspiracy theories actually work a little too well as explanations.
The advantage a conspiracy theory has over the official story is that it explains everything the official story does and more. An example Steve Clarke gives: Why was Elvis’ middle name, Aron, spelt “Aaron” on his tombstone? The official theory is silent on this, but the conspiracy theory is ready with an answer: the superstitious Elvis couldn’t bear the thought of a gravestone with his real name on it while he was still alive. But the fact that an official story hasn’t explained a given fact yet doesn’t mean it can never explain it. (In fact, it turns out Elvis just didn’t like the single-a spelling and started spelling it Aaron towards the end of his life.) Besides, even our best explanations usually do leave bits and pieces unexplained. Conspiracy theories tie up most or all of the loose ends, and that itself turns out to be a reason to be wary of them: successful explanations for complex events are never that neat.
Another useful way of getting at what’s generally wrong with conspiracy theories is offered by Clarke, drawing on the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos’ distinction between progressive and degenerating research programmes. Suppose your theory is that Tom murdered his landlady. But Tom produces a ticket that puts him on a train miles away at the time of the murder. This evidence seems to falsify your theory, because if Tom was on the train he can’t be the killer. But now you try to defend your theory with an auxiliary hypothesis: Tom bought the ticket but never used it, in order to establish his alibi. Then you use this auxiliary hypothesis to make a prediction: if we check the CCTV footage from the train station, we’ll see Tom buying the ticket and leaving the station without boarding the train. If that is indeed what the footage shows, we’ve got a progressive research programme: introducing auxiliary hypotheses has helped the theory make successful predictions that reveal new facts.
By contrast, many – perhaps most – conspiracy theories are degenerating research programmes. They defend their core beliefs using auxiliary hypotheses that don’t help them make any successful predictions. The theory that NASA faked the moon landings takes a hit when we see photos of lunar landing sites, including rover tracks, taken from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. To defend itself, the theory must use an auxiliary hypothesis: the photos are fake! But then we’d expect to find signs of fakery in the images, or whistle-blowers from NASA’s super-secret Moon Hoax Photoshop Division to come forward, which hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, years pass with none of the conspirators fessing up or new evidence emerging; more evidence pops up that seems to disprove the theory, more ad hoc hypotheses are offered in reply, again without allowing the theory to predict and discover new facts. It’s not always clear when a research programme has become degenerative, let alone when it’s irrecoverable, but the moon landing hoax theory is clearly circling the drain.
Yes of course, the conspiracy theorist might reply: you can’t expect a theory like that to make successful predictions, or even produce much evidence, because powerful forces are actively hiding and suppressing it. But the longer this process goes on, the more the theory simply looks like either a dying research programme or a piece of unfalsifiable speculation rather than something we could take seriously as possibly being true.
So it seems that while it’s sometimes rational to believe in conspiracy theories – we’d worry about someone who still refused to accept that Watergate happened because they don’t believe in conspiracy theories – we do have some fairly good reasons not to buy into most of them.
But very little work has been done on the further question of whether conspiracy theorising is an ethically dubious activity. Scouring old Apollo photos for evidence of a hoax might be a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon, but even that has real ethical consequences. When moon hoax proponent Bart Sibrel ambushed Buzz Aldrin with a bible (for swearing on) and a film crew, and called Aldrin “a coward, and a liar, and a thief”, Aldrin ended up punching Sibrel in the jaw. The LAPD decided not to press charges on the grounds that Aldrin had been provoked.
Of course, we can think it’s morally wrong to harass someone in the way Sibril did (he later apologised to Aldrin), or send them abusive emails or phone calls as in the case of Gene Rosen, without thinking that conspiracy theories themselves are unethical. But that ignores another harm done to Aldrin and Rosen: the accusation itself. Conspiracy theories, by their nature, involve accusing people of doing terrible things. If I claim that Diana was murdered, I thereby posit a murderer, even if I don’t say exactly who it is. If I offer a more specific theory – say, MI6 killed Diana on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh – then I’m accusing specific, concrete individuals of these misdeeds.
You might think that there’s no harm in that if the object of those accusations never finds out about them; I doubt Prince Phillip stays up all night trawling conspiracy websites in bewildered outrage. But as Thomas Nagel noted in his influential article on the harmfulness of death, we don’t need to experience a harm in order to be wronged by it. If you betray me behind my back, said Nagel, the betrayal isn’t bad because it would make me unhappy if I found out about it. Rather, it would make me unhappy because it’s bad to be betrayed. So if the accusation is unjust, Prince Phillip doesn’t need to hear about it in order to be wronged.
Ok, says the conspiracy theorist, but what if it’s true? It would be supremely foolhardy to resist ever accusing anyone of being involved in a conspiracy if the evidence suggests they are. Surely it’s not wrong to accuse someone of doing something terrible they actually did? So the problem here can’t simply be that conspiracy theories involve making accusations.
Using Clarke’s Lakatosian framework again, I think we can see what the problem might be. Conspiracy theories defend themselves against counterevidence by widening the scope of the conspiracy. If humans never went to the moon, and Aldrin says he did go there, then Aldrin must be a liar. If the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, and Gene Rosen says otherwise, then Gene Rosen must be a government conspirator. The media doesn’t support the theory or report any evidence to support it? They must be in on it too! Investigators find no evidence of a conspiracy? Corruption! And on and on it goes. By now we can recognise these accusations as auxiliary hypotheses – and they’re purely defensive. They expand the theory without adding to the evidence in its favour or helping us learn new facts. In short, they’re made purely to prop up what looks suspiciously like a degenerating research programme.
There are no clear dividing lines here. But where a research programme is degenerating and another, progressive programme is on offer, at some point we need to jump ship. The moon landing hoax programme, for instance, is clearly degenerating, while the official explanation is powering ahead. There comes a point (maybe a very fuzzy point, maybe only discernible in retrospect) when it becomes irrational, even intellectually dishonest, to continue to pursue the programme. And that deficiency carries over, I’d suggest, into the ethical sphere.
Let me now add an important premise that admittedly I can’t really argue for here in full: We owe it to people to think well of them until we’ve got reasons to think otherwise. Something like the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” holds in the ethical sphere too; unjustified suspicions are morally as well as rationally flawed. This is connected with the crucial role that trust plays in our lives. Our social practices and institutions, most of our knowledge base, even our very ability to communicate depends upon the assumption that most people are telling the truth most of the time. Dishonesty and insincerity are deviations from a state of affairs we have to take as the default.
So when someone like Gene Rosen tells his story, we’re both entitled and required to take him at his word unless we have good reasons not to. Saving a dying pet theory just isn’t, I think, a good enough reason. If what I’ve said above is right, we should only conclude someone is lying on the basis of good evidence and with a certain reluctance that is only overcome by being overwhelmed by the force of the evidence. Degenerating research programmes generally aren’t going to have enough of that force on their own, and so they need their defenders to illicitly add it for them.
In the case of Rosen, Bauman and the others accused of being “crisis actors”, the evidence used against them was not merely thin, but laughable – or it would be were it not so offensive. One claim doing the rounds was that a photo of Barak Obama posing with families affected by the Sandy Hook shooting features six-year-old Emilie Parker, thereby proving she hadn’t been killed as reported. In fact, the girl in the photo was her younger sister, wearing one of Emilie’s dresses. Think about this supposed evidence for a moment – so, the family just forgot their daughter was supposed to be dead and took her to the White House? – and it falls apart in your hands. Unless, that is, you just really want to believe the government faked Sandy Hook so it can take away your guns.
Viewed as a practice, habitual conspiracy theorising seems likely to make people more and more disposed to this sort of accusation-making. Perhaps that’s why conspiracy theorists are so quick to divide those who disagree with them into the credulous and the complicit. I’ve spent a bit of time arguing online with hardcore anti-vaccinationists, for whom everyone who rejects their conspiratorial view of the world is either “sheeple” or “shills” for Big Pharma. Again, this is a theory defending itself by being altogether too willing to cast aspersions on anyone who threatens it.
And beyond the level of individuals, this internal defensive logic erodes more and more of that necessary degree of trust in social institutions, including the knowledge-producing institutions we are far more reliant upon than many of us would care to admit. It’s only a few steps from the belief that Big Pharma is lying to us to belief that the government, media, universities and doctors are all in on it too. Eventually, as Keeley notes, the conspiracy theorist is unable to believe anything much at all – a sort of epistemic suicide.
Still, we live in a world where conspiracies do happen, and social institutions do demand vigilance and scrutiny rather than blind faith. So when is such suspicion warranted, even necessary, and when is it unjust? Again, there are no clear lines here, but the sort of framework discussed above might provide some useful guidelines: if you have to keep making more and more accusations to prop your theory up, and the accusations don’t strengthen your case with new evidence, you’ve backed the wrong horse, and a few apologies may be in order.
Even so, I still wouldn’t annoy Prince Phillip if I were you. Call it a hunch.